As we step into the holiday season, we all yearn for a little warmth and laughter, for some real connection, for a glimpse of that childlike wonder we left behind. And most of all, we long to be surrounded by our nearest and dearest. We long for family.

But for those who are still on the journey to find their birth relatives, family can be a bittersweet notion and the winter holidays can be a time of mixed emotions. When you have nothing but questions instead of memories in that place in your heart where your birth family should be, it can be hard to enjoy festivities with your loved ones. Because while you are grateful for every chair that is filled, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re glancing constantly at the empty seats in your heart, wondering if they will ever be taken.

Yet, holidays are about hope and magic, about everything being possible and about finding strength and comfort in knowing we are loved. So if you are bracing yourself for a complicated festive season, where you still haven’t found your biological family (or have contacted them and haven’t heard back), here are some ways to make this time of year lighter on your heart and more meaningful to your journey:

Find your true family

A family can mean so many things: we are all born into one, but not necessarily raised by it. Some of us may have grown up with family forever bound to us by love, but not by blood. Others may have never experienced this concept in childhood, and only understood it later in life, when they finally found their tribe. For some children their family home was a safe haven, while for others it was a place where they felt scared and alone. So who or what is a family anyway?

Set aside some quiet time before the holiday season ends and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who are the people in my life I feel completely safe with?

  • Who do I trust to always have my best interests at heart?

  • Who has taken time out of their busy days this year to be there for me when I needed them?

  • Who is constantly checking in with me, making sure I am alright?

  • When I am doing something new, exciting or frightening, who are the people I am eager to share it with?

  • Who makes me feel like I’m a better person when I am around them?

  • Who can I be my true self around and is, in turn, always authentic with me?

  • Who do I always know I can turn to, even when I’ve made mistakes or not been the best version of myself?

Take your time to answer these questions, to write the answers down if it feels natural. You may identify one person or many. Perhaps a spouse, a friend, an adoptive parent, a sibling, a mentor. Perhaps it will be someone you’ve known all your life or someone you’ve just recently grown close to. What they bring to your life is the true meaning of family: safety, trust, support, care, encouragement, vulnerability and unconditional love.

Be sure you include this family that your heart has recognized in your holiday celebrations. It doesn’t need to be in a conventional way and you don’t need to sit around a festive table with all of them at the same time. Do things which are meaningful to each of your unique relationships. Live out old traditions or create new ones. Here are some things that you can do to celebrate which don’t involve the sometimes dreaded family dinner:

  • Look at some photo albums from childhood together. Share good and bad memories, as they come. Then take a photo of the both of you and have it printed out as a holiday gift for each other. If you’re feeling crafty, you can make a frame by hand.

  • Talk about unique, quirky holiday traditions you had and enjoyed in your family or your neighbourhood while growing up. Choose one for each of you and do them together. Then invent a new tradition just for you, that you’d like to keep doing every year.

  • Cook, bake or craft together - either make traditional items or try out a new recipe/project you’ve always been curious about. It doesn’t matter if it turns out as intended, but make sure to be present and enjoy the process.

  • Take a day trip - go hiking, on a long walk or a drive. It will give you a chance to reconnect, a more intimate setting for conversation and an opportunity for new adventures. You can go to a place that is meaningful to your relationship (e.g. a spot where you used to camp in summer) or you can enjoy the thrill of discovering new places together.

Give your family the chance to do its job

Now that you have a better idea of who your true family is, give them a chance to do the very thing that is the cornerstone of this institution: to support you through a difficult time. Adoptees may have concerns about letting others know about their journey to find their own birth relatives and birth parents may hold back sharing their adoptee search - especially when it comes to an adoptive family - you may worry it might hurt their feelings if you talk about your mixed emotions around holiday times. You might even think you will bring the mood down and affect everyone’s celebration if you don’t put on a strong, cheerful face. But this robs you of an opportunity to live your truth and it robs them of a chance to be supportive and bring you comfort.

A real family is there for you through thick and thin, and there can be no celebration unless every member is loved and honoured in the most meaningful way possible: by creating space for them to voice their emotions, even difficult ones, and reassuring them that they are valued for who they really are.

Here are some tips on how to make this conversation easier if you are facing difficulties in opening up or being vulnerable:

  • Write your thoughts or feelings down in a text, e-mail or letter and send it to them. This will give you time to get your thoughts in order. Don’t apologise for “burdening” them with your conflicting emotions - if you feel like doing so, thank them for listening instead.

  • Talk to one person at a time - having to speak about what’s bothering you to a larger group can be intimidating. A heart-to-heart between two people who care about each other can be more intimate and more fulfilling.

  • Choose the appropriate time and place to talk about how not having your birth family in your life makes you feel around the holiday time. Make sure the other person is in a mental space where they can give you their attention, that you’re not pressed by time and that you’re in an intimate setting, where you’re not likely to get interrupted (e.g. if there are small children in the house, it might be best to get someone to watch them and go out to talk over coffee).

Bring the birth relative you are searching for into your family holiday

Once you have taken the leap and allowed your nearest and dearest to support you on your journey to find your birth family, there are little things you can do to make them feel more real and less like a missing part of your life. It may help you feel them closer to you during this emotionally charged season if you try some of these ideas:

  • Create a personalised seasonal decoration with them in mind. It can be a tree ornament, a candle, a small bell or whatever feels right to you. You can write their name on it, decorate it with a photograph if you happen to have one or simply add some colours and motifs which seem meaningful to you in relation to them. Display it somewhere in sight, as a constant beacon of hope.

  • Write a holiday card to the birth family member you are searching for. Express your feelings just as they come about what their presence in your life would mean to you at the present day. Keep it on your mantle until the season is over, then store it in a safe place, such as a memory box.

  • Set aside a small present for them, even if you won’t get the chance to give it to them this year. Pick something symbolic, that doesn’t deteriorate or lose meaning in time. Hopefully, one holiday season in the future, you will be reunited with your birth family and able to gift it to them for real.

Get ready to take your family reunion journey into the New Year

While it can be brimming with all kinds of emotion, bustling with social gatherings and radiant with glimmering lights, the holiday season still marks the end of another year. And with endings, come new beginnings.

For adoptees, if your search has been long, you may feel weary of heading hopefully into another year only to risk being disappointed once more. The same can be true if you are undertaking an adoptee search. But never give up hope, because every new day brings new possibilities of overcoming the roadblocks in searching for your birth family.

If you have already signed up to an online adoption reunion registry, you never know which will be the day when you will get a match from the birth family member you have been searching for. While the largest international adoption reunion registry, Adopted.com, has over 1.000.000 users, new people are creating profiles every day. And one of them may be looking for you. Many of the reunions reported include the fact that after registering, contact from their loved one still came as a surprise!

If you haven’t registered for this service yet, it is a wonderful new pathway to take in the new year. All you need to do is create a free account and answer 10 questions about the adoption. If you were in a closed adoption, you will not even have to have access to your adoption records, because there are 3 ways to search on Adopted.com and you can even enter your DNA profile to help your adoption reunion search.

The proprietary matching algorithm will search throughout our vast global database of voluntary adoption records in search of another member who matches the questions you answered. When a match is found, you have the option to connect through the interface. However, if no match is found, there is no need to despair. If the one you are searching for decides to create a profile one day, you will be informed of the new match.

In the meantime, be sure to take care of yourself and to allow your family to take care of you as well, providing love and comfort and being a source of strength for the challenges to come. And if extra support is needed, don’t hesitate to seek out the Adopted.com Community forum. Everyone there has been through similar experiences as yourself, they have seen all the common outcomes of an adoption reunion search and can empathise and give advice from a place of deep understanding.

May your holidays be merry, may your heart be light even in the midst of turmoil and may your journey bring healing, regardless of its destination!